A month on from the crisis of the opening day Arsenal luxuriate at the top of the Premier League, the short-termists screaming for Arsene Wenger’s head exiled in deep space. The symbol of the club’s forward march, Mezut Ozil, justified his status as England’s most expensive summer import by setting up on his home debut each of his team’s three goals, the kind of set-piece executions that were once the hallmark of Stoke.
It was some irony that for much of the final 20 minutes, with the Arsenal engine room gearing down, Stoke were the team knocking it around. Somewhere in the precincts of Stokeland, a former manager is wandering the streets shaking his head. Two looping headers and a followed-up tap-in from a free-kick saw Arsenal apply the cosh. It was never like that in Tony Pullis’s day.
Mark Hughes is to be applauded for his attempts at renewal at Stoke. In Steven Nzonzi, Marc Wilson and Geoff Cameron, Hughes had three players of some merit, each of whom married purpose and ideas to some effect if little goal threat. As long as Kenwyne Jones remains the focal point of the team’s forward thrust, it is likely to remain that way.
This was entirely Ozil’s day, his mesmeric left-foot and incisive movement the source of the new optimism surging through the Emirates. If there is a down side to the accommodation of the towering Teuton it is the displacement of Jack Wilshere, who had only episodic influence from his left-sided berth and left the scene in a state of exhaustion, according to Wenger, who claimed he should have rested him.
In the epoch of Ozil, who left to a standing ovation with ten minutes to go, you imagine Wilshere will just have to find his place. Yet in ceding central ground there is a sense that something in his game is diminished. In this configuration he is no longer the heartbeat of the team. It is true that the system devised by Wenger has fluidity, and that Wilshere has scope to migrate, but the trigger moves are largely Ozil’s.
Of his signature signing Wenger said: “When you play against Stoke you don’t expect to score from three set pieces. That was a big surprise to me today and it shows the importance of delivery. When you look at his (Ozil’s) numbers, the assists are not a co-incidence. He showed his class today. He has given a lift to everybody at the club. He will get better. He has good pace. The focus is on his passing but he can create, too.”
The game was only minutes old when Ozil drew the save from Asmir Begovic that led to the opening goal. Begovic palmed the free-kick into the path of the advancing Aaron Ramsey, who promptly smashed his seventh goal in eight games this season. Confidence was already high following victories on the road at Sunderland and Marseille. Maybe Arsenal over indulged and were complicit in what happened next through their complacency. The next goal you thought must be Arsenal’s. Instead it went to Stoke.
Cameron, strong and mobile, was easily Stoke’s most influential player and was perfectly placed to drill the rebound when debutant Marko Arnautovic’s left-footed volley came back off a post. Nzonzi deserved credit, too, for his lifted pass that picked out Arnautivic, whose instinctive response froze the Arsenal defence, allowing Cameron to score.
For all Arsenal’s commitment to the finer points of football geometry it was through the mundane that they re-established their lead, the elongated Per Mertesacker sending a looping header past Bergovic from Ozil’s corner. Stephen Ireland replaced Charlie Adam on the hour and ten minutes later Hughes introduced the combative Wilson Palacios. Thus invigorated Stoke developed a presence in the final third that was pleasing on the eye and, as Hughes claimed, threatened parity.
“We talked at half time about playing more in the opposition half and showed more control, which is what we want to do this year,” Hughes said. “At 2-1 I thought the team most likely to score was us but the third goal took the wind out of our sails. If you don’t get the big details right you can’t win games. And we didn’t get them right today.”
Arsenal’s third via the head of Bacary Sagna ended the contest and was the signal for Wenger to remove Wilshere. Seven minutes later Ozil was hooked, too. Wenger was rightly cheered by what he saw but not necessarily seduced. “We were fluent in the first half. In the second we looked jaded and lost our game a bit, our technical buoyancy. I should have rested Jack today. He was a bit exhausted. But it has been a good week for us. I’m feeling well. Now we have to keep it going.”
Hughes echoed Wenger’s surprise at the nature of the goals Stoke conceded, but there is no turning back at the Britannia. The Pulis template is gone for good. Hughes is aiming higher. “We were disappointed to concede three goals to set plays. That doesn’t normally happen to Stoke teams. We are still a work in progress. We have taken huge strides. We showed great courage to draw level. We need to keep the performance level going in the right direction. Arsenal are a great team, and in Ozil they have a player with the ability to unpick the lock.”
Arsenal: Szczesny 7, Sagna 7, Mertesacker 8, Koscielny 7, Wilshere 6 (Monreal, 73), Ozil 8 (Arteta 80), Giroud 6, Ramsey 8 Flamini 7, Gibbs 7, Gnabry 5 (Miyaichi 73)
Stoke: Begovic 6, Pieters 6 (Palacios 63), Huth 6, Jones 5 (Pennant 75), Arnautovic 6, Wilson 7, N’zonzi 8, Adam 6 (Ireland 59), Shawcross 7, Walters 6, Cameron 8
Man of the Match: Ozil
Match rating: 7